Photo by Matt Riley
It goes without saying that bluegrass and mountains are a mighty fine match. Montana Snowbowl’s decision to bring acoustic pioneer and master mandolin player David Grisman in as the inaugural show for their new concert series was a perfect fit, one that had diehard music lovers breaking out the long-sleeves and shuttling up the road for a late-season outdoor shakedown at Missoula’s local ski hill. Despite the show being billed as the David Grisman Sextet, no one seemed to mind the slightly diminished lineup as the sweet strains of unmistakeable Dawg music wove its way up the hillside.
Local bluegrass favorites The Lil’ Smokies opened the show in fitting form, with a condensed, spitfire set heavy on originals. Confident picking, addicting hooks and dobro player Andy Dunnigan’s crystalline vocal melodies etch tunes like “Might As Well” into listeners’ memories with ease, and it’s that combination that won them last year’s Northwest String Summit band competition and catapulted the sextet into regional adoration.
The cheers went up as the sun began to go down and the David Grisman Quintet took the stage. “Thank you for coming out here and climbing the mountain to listen to us,” Grisman said before the band launched in to “Janice” for the second song of the show. Nearly four decades after the song was released, it still sounds fresh in the elder statesman’s capable hands.
The format of this band through the years has always been inclusive however, and while the faces have continuously changed Grisman has taken care to always assemble proficient, like-minded players. Bassist Jim Kerwin has been with the group since the mid 80’s, holding down a solid backbeat that allows the lead players to stretch out to full potential. Flautist Matt Eakle has the next longest tenure and proved why with countless show-stealing moments, like the bass flute solo on “Tracy’s Tune.” The relative newcomers in the band, guitarist George Cole and fiddle player Chad Manning (who has logged in some years with Grisman’s Bluegrass Experience) fit in flawlessly, trading jazzed-up licks throughout the classic Django Reinhardt tune “Minor Swing.”
The setlist spanned most of Grisman’s career, from the classic Jerry Garcia/Grisman tune “Grateful Dawg” to “Gypsy Nights” off of the album “Dawg ’90.” The only particular drawback of the venue was a considerable lack of volume, making it hard to hear the music near the back of the crowd, though most fans didn’t mind cozying up to the stage to get a closer look at a legend in action. Grisman approached each solo he took with infinite delicacy, breathing new life into tunes like the bluegrass burner “Pigeon Roost” and the consummate crowd-pleaser and set closer “Shady Grove,” the only non-instrumental of the night. One encore wasn’t enough for the audience, prompting Grisman to declare “If you stop whistling we’ll play some more!” before his bluesy solo on “Dawg’s Waltz” wrapped up the music on the mountainside.